Why Marilyn Monroe’s White Dress Was So Iconic

Matty Zimmerman/AP

From rags to riches, Marylyn Monroe epitomized the American dream. But the sultry blonde bombshell introduced a new American dream to audiences, too: one that was outright sexual. Finding prominence during a comparatively prudish era, Monroe defied — and later, defined — expectations of how a starlet could look and talk… and dress. And of all the fabulous, slinky outfits that Marilyn Monroe donned, her flouncing white dress is absolutely the most iconic.

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‘The Seven Year Itch’


Marilyn Monroe first appeared in the white dress in 1955, starring in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. While the rom-com itself was nothing special, it indulged in society’s most overt fantasies regarding the nubile new actress. The “seven-year itch” is an old-school phenomenon suggesting that men, driven by boredom, are most likely to cheat or leave during the seventh year of marriage.

As such, the movie follows Tom Ewell as Richard Sherman: a nerdy, white-collar husband in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Naturally, Sherman starts to lust after his new neighbor, played by Monroe. It’s your typical will-they-won’t-they story that’s easily forgotten in favor of the film’s most striking scene… when Monroe hovers over subway grates in a billowing white dress.

In The Seven Year Itch, this would-be couple exits a cinema onto Lexington Avenue after watching Creature from the Black Lagoon. As they stroll, the Manhattan sidewalk clears out, and Monroe’s ingenue offers a humanist film analysis. “He wasn’t all bad,” she says, sweetly, of the swamp creature. But the semi-philosophical moment is undercut when a train rumbles underfoot feet. “Isn’t it delicious?” Monroe coos as the subway sends up a gust of wind, ruffling her skirt. The camera cuts to focus on Monroe waist-down: a shot that features slim white sandal heels and a red pedicure. The moan of the transit disappears, the camera cuts back to the two characters’ faces. Ewell looks highly amused.

The playful on-screen moment was titillating for both the protagonist and viewers alike: a textbook example of the male gaze. And, in being so, the scene was quickly distilled from the context of the movie it came from. Even Ewell’s lead character is a non-entity in the image which immediately became a cultural watershed.

Marilyn Monroe in Her Iconic White Dress

Matty Zimmerman/AP

Watch The Seven Year Itch, however, and you’ll notice that the most familiar image of Monroe — a full-body shot in which she laughs playfully, lightly forcing her skirt down with her hand — is not present. In fact, this more direct picture (taken by Matty Zimmerman) was only used in advertisements. But that was enough to make an indelible impression, as the promotional campaign for The Seven Year Itch was extensive. 20th Century Fox even erected a 52-foot-tall cut-out of the famous pose in Times Square.

Like the film, that Times Square display pinned an intimate moment against the hardened expectations of a New York City Street. On an even grander scale. In 1955, this knowing show of indecency transformed everyone into unwitting voyeur — whether they purchased a movie ticket or not — immortalizing the legacy of the girl in the up-skirt shot.

A Dress That Lives On

Costume designer William Travilla was tasked with creating the white cocktail dress for The Seven Year Itch. Having designed Marilyn Monroe’s extravagant gowns for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, two years prior, Travilla was an expert on emphasizing her legendary curves.

He crafted the white halter to accentuate Monroe’s breasts, although the dress did not offer much cleavage within a V-neckline. Similarly, the garment’s silhouette, demarcated with tight, crisscrossing ribbon straps, remains full and fluffy. It is a dress dripping in contradictions. Wild with movement, it’s flirty fun. But a serious, constricting waistline keeps the light outfit from feeling casual. Specially designed for the imperceptive male eye, the monochrome frock may appear simple, slip-like… until her pleated skirt catches the air. That’s when Monroe’s ensemble functions like an accidental trap. But there was nothing accidental about Travilla’s creation.

Throughout The Seven Year Itch, Tom Ewell’s stuffy protagonist is overcome by vivid fantasies of the women around him. And while the subway grate scene occurs in the reality of the film, there is something quite unbelievable about the, admittedly extra, getup that his neighbor dons to their movie outing. As if playing directly into his repressed imagination, Travilla’s concocted design is sexy without (too) obviously subverting the onlooker’s polite expectations.

Folded into the symbolic purity of white, the dress is layered with seductive elements. The result is a girlishness that mimics Monroe’s (perfected) faux innocent act. A bright white that sparkles against the grimy city sidewalk.

However, Travilla was unimpressed by his own work, calling the final product “that silly little dress.” And Joe DiMaggio agreed! Married to Monroe at the time, the famous baseball player supposedly hated the costume… though likely for a much different reason than the fashion-conscious Travilla.

Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”

As the dress went down in cinematic history — to William Travilla’s chagrin — the designer let it collect dust among his many possessions. For years, the dress was missing from the public eye! It wasn’t until Travilla’s death in 1990 that actress Debbie Reynolds picked it up for a mere $200. In 2011, on the verge of bankruptcy, Reynolds was forced to sell her extensive collection of Hollywood memorabilia and so the white dress went to auction.

By this point, the antique was really more a tan color, or as Reynolds called it, “ecru.” Still, it sold for $4.6 million, the highest amount bid for any dress… until one of Marilyn Monroe’s glittering gold gowns went for $4.8 million at a Los Angeles auction in 2016. You may remember the stylish wonder from when Monroe sang “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to JFK in 1962. Infamously, that piece was resurrected again in 2022, by Kim Kardashian.

“Happy Birthday Mr. President” By Marilyn Monroe

By this point, both Marilyn Monroe and her famous white dress are an eternal studies in pop culture . Satirized again and again, the imitations of the Seven Year Itch scene take all forms, from funny Halloween costumes to sitcom parodies to larger-than-life pieces of fine art. In 2011, artist Seward Johnson created a super-sized tribute to Monroe in his “Forever Marilyn” statue which traveled worldwide and made its debut on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. By inviting passersby to take a peek — under her dress, no less — Johnson recreated the urban marvel of The Seven Year Itch on a massive scale.

The Marilyn Monroe Statue In Chicago

Chicago’s Marilyn Monroe statue via indiatvnews.com

When the statue was quickly defaced by vandals, the Chicago Public Arts Group released this interesting message about the roles we inhabit as viewers. “In our society, we have little room for sexually expressive images,” they wrote. “The social contract doesn’t work, because it is itself laden with political meaning, and provocative meaning and sexual meaning.”

I think this is important to consider, especially taking the tragic end of Marilyn Monroe’s famous, life into account. The misunderstood actress overdosed on pills, likely intentionally, in 1962; her inspiring career was left ultimately incomplete. And if the poor reception Blonde, the recent Monroe biopic, is any indication, we still don’t know what to make of that. We still wonder what was hidden behind the fetishized folds of a white dress.


Read More: Was Marilyn Monroe Really in a Throuple?

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